Bridging the Palm

Royal Haskoning Architects has unveiled its design for a project that will put Palm Jebel Ali on the map.

The unique form of the PJA Bridge.
The unique form of the PJA Bridge.

Royal Haskoning Architects unveils its designs for a project that will put Palm Jebel Ali on the map.

Designed to rival Sydney's Harbour, Rotterdam's Erasmus and San Francisco's Golden Gate, the Palm Jebel Ali (PJA) Bridge is the newest offering from Holland's Royal Haskoning Architects.

Spanning 450m, the PJA Bridge is partly an exercise in applying design principles from lessons learned during the Palm Jumeirah project.


The word 'iconic' is inflationary in this region but this bridge will put Palm Jebel Ali on the map. - Syb van Breda

Employing a solution that is a bit of a departure from previous projects, the PJA Bridge connects the mainland to the trunk and allows users to fully experience the interaction between the water and the built environment.

"Palm Jumeirah is a water exercise. It is about an island world in the water," says Syb van Breda, director of architecture at Royal Haskoning.

And while it's true that the Palm Jumeirah bridge is indeed the entrance to Dubai's first and most well-known Palm, it is difficult to recognise where the mainland ends and the trunk of the Palm begins.

At Palm Jebel Ali, the situation is different. The area is much wider and thus allows for the use of solutions that were unavailable when the entrance to Palm Jumierah was constructed.

"Nakheel wanted to enhance the crossing... by making the moment of going from the mainland to the water world, a special one," says van Breda.

The PJA Bridge, however, is much more than just a lesson learned.

It is a symbol of the integration of architecture and the natural environment.

Not only does it aim to demonstrate the collaborative genius of architects and engineers, the PJA Bridge provides the very means by which laypersons can experience that genius first-hand.

"Take the Parthenon, the best of all Greek temples," says van Breda.

"Why was it there? Not just because somebody thought up a genius scheme, but because the city of Athens wanted to show the world that they were the masters of the Aegean Sea."


The idea comes from wanting to do something impossible it's about devising a way to amaze people. - Alessandro De Santis

Concept design

Although the AutoCAD renderings are impressive, the concept for the PJA Bridge began on a much simpler scale.

"Everything started over dinner," says lead architect Alessandro De Santis. "We talked and sketched and talked a bit more. Everything started with a pen and a piece of paper."

De Santis likes to say that in architectural design, "the hands follow the head," which is why he draws inspiration not from other architects but from world-renowned sculptors.

"A bridge is much more sculptural," he says. "You feel much more like an artist. We look to people like Naum Gabo or Brancusi for reference."

In fact, for the PJA Bridge project, van Breda and De Santis didn't set out looking to build a bridge; their goal was a much more artistic solution.

"For this kind of structure, we wanted a sculpture...a sculpture that works as a bridge," says De Santis.

Approaching bridges as sculptures rather than architecture allows Royal Haskoning to focus on creating structures that are masterpieces in both disciplines.

"In bridges there is much more artistic freedom. You don't have a programme," says De Santis.

"Isn't it wonderful that something as straightforward and efficient as a bridge gives you the most freedom to create a nice shape?" asks van Breda.

Both a means of access and an iconic addition to the Waterfront skyline, the PJA Bridge will need to perform dual functions.

Similar to the way in which viewers interact with sculptures in parks and other social areas, the PJA Bridge needs to be something users can experience from both land and sea.

"There are many beautiful cable-stayed bridges throughout the world..." says De Santis.

"But our design provides a scheme that incorporates a V-shaped gate that welcomes visitors....Our goal was to do something beautiful."

Guardians of the Palm

Without question, the bridge's signature features are the pylons and the floating deck, both of which were ideas borne of the need to do something unique.

"The pylons are like the guards of the Palm and the protectors of the floating deck," says van Breda.

From the initial concept design, the PJA Bridge raised questions about feasibility.

In fact, engineers from both Royal Haskoning and Nakheel second guessed the slenderness of the pylons and the unique separation of the pylons from the bridge's deck.

"It's all about stretching the limits," says van Breda.

"There are several ways to span the water but we felt that this was a position in which we could do something that has never been done before," says De Santis.

Although Royal Haskoning chose a cable-stayed solution for its spectacular profile, the PJA Bridge needs to be about more than just aesthetics.

The size and scale of the bridge requires something similar to the bridges at Garhoud and Business Bay.

"We wanted to make a big bridge that would allow people to use it quickly and also transcend the massiveness," says van Breda.

"But, we didn't want to make just another cable-stayed bridge with one or two central pylons."

Thus was born the idea of splitting the pylons, moving them to either side and incorporating a deck that appears to float.

Standing at a 30° angle and towering 135m, the guardian-like pylons utilise 27 support cables each.

"There are three cable-stayed planes per pylon, so two planes support the deck towards the pylons," explains van Breda.

Innovations incorporated

Not to be outdone by the unique pylons and floating deck, the piers of the bridge-perhaps the most traditional element to a bridge-were also redesigned. "We wanted them to be slick," says De Santis.

"We wanted something that came out of the sea and reinforced the image of a floating deck."

The pedestrian walkway, which-according to van Breda-is usually a secondary consideration in bridge design, is separated from the deck by a 1m gap.

This configuration allows the wind to flow through and around the deck, which significantly increases the bridge's overall stability.

Moreover, the walking paths that line either side of the bridge are designed to be much lower than the roadway.

This solution protects pedestrians from the noise and pollution of the traffic and allows drivers a clear view of the water.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody," says van Breda.

One of the most important design components of the PJA Bridge however, is the protective railing.

While most bridges in the UAE incorporate protective concrete barriers on either side, the Royal Haskoning solution is a much lower barrier that uses a steel rail and slender legs.

This allows the protective elements to become much more transparent and enhances the user's contact with the water.

"It's nice to have big pylons and a spectacular profile but it's the experience from your car, and on foot, that makes all the difference," says van Breda.

Client rapport

In architecture today, much is made of the importance of constructive collaboration between architects and engineers.

While that is indeed a critical relationship, there is another relationship that is equally important to the process: that between a project's client and its architect.

"Good architecture doesn't exist without good clients....It's that simple" explains van Breda.

Clarity of purpose and singularity in vision between client and architect is crucial and, in this respect, De Santis feels very lucky.

"The directors of Palm Jebel Ali considered a number of contractors that claimed they could do [a bridge] cheaper or better," he says.

"Nakheel decided to partner with us because they knew they wanted this design."

In any service industry, the relationship between those providing the service and those paying for said service is beset by challenges.

Needless to say, architecture is no exception.

But, according to van Breda, good communication and similar goals enriches the process and creates the best results.

"If you strive to weather the storms and keep your ship on the right course, then you get fantastic results," says van Breda.

"Of course, we've had our share of battles but you have to balance risk with wish. You have to always be asking, 'Is this possible? Or, does it go too far?'"

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